Return to main index

H8. Preserving Things That Belong to God and That Are Holy    [Make a Comment]

We are to preserve, and not destroy, things that belong to God and that are holy.

This precept is derived from His Word (blessed is He):

Deuteronomy 12:2-4 (Maimonides RN65; Meir MN157; Chinuch C437)
You must destroy all the places where the nations you are dispossessing served their gods, whether on high mountains, on hills, or under some leafy tree. Break down their altars, smash their standing-stones to pieces, burn up their sacred poles completely and cut down the carved images of their gods. Exterminate their name from that place. But you are not to treat ADONAI your God this way.

Deuteronomy 20:19-20 (Maimonides RN57; Meir MN191; Chinuch C529)
When, in making war against a town in order to capture it, you lay siege to it for a long time, you are not to destroy its trees, cutting them down with an axe. You can eat their fruit, so don't cut them down. After all, are the trees in the field human beings, so that you have to besiege them too? However, if you know that certain trees provide no food, you may destroy them and cut them down, in order to build siege-works against the town making war with you, until it falls.

This Mitzvah #H8 brings together two Scriptures that, at first glance, have little in common. Deuteronomy 12:2-4 commands the Israelites to destroy all the places and objects used for idol-worship that they find among the heathen nations they are dispossessing; however, if in the process of doing so they come across places of worship and things that belong to HaShem - those they must not destroy.

Eight chapters later, Deuteronomy 20:19-20 forbids the Israelites from destroying fruit trees while laying siege to a city.

The connection between these seemingly unrelated Scriptures is the attribute of "holiness". God indeed wants places where idolatry is practiced and implements used there to be destroyed, but He does not want His holy places and things - things that belong to Him or that He provides as a blessing for men (like the fruit trees) to be destroyed in the process. Even when they have fallen into the hands of an enemy - holy things of God retain their holiness and must not be destroyed.

Ephesians 4:29 illustrates this Mitzvah #8 in a less tangible form:

Let no harmful language come from your mouth, only good words that are helpful in meeting the need, words that will benefit those who hear them.

Here the holy possession of God that we must not harm or destroy is our neighbor. The Scripture warns us that our words can be harmful to those who hear them, so we must speak only good and helpful words in order to not bring destruction to our neighbor who is God's holy creation.

Jewish halachah and tradition have long recognized the principle of preserving, and not destroying, things that belong to God and that are holy. An example is that we do not "trash" or tear up old Bibles, Torah scrolls or siddurim. Instead, there is a procedure whereby we ceremonially bury them in a way that is analogous to the way we bury a deceased person.1. I am also reminded of the way in which Leviticus 19:23-24 commands our holy respect for fruit-bearing trees. We do not eat their fruit during the first three years of their planting; the fourth year fruit is considered holy, and all of it must be used for praising God. It is only from the fifth year on that we may eat the fruit with an expectation of receiving its blessing year after year. Consider also, our "practical" respect for trees in Israel where we seek to plant them and not destroy them (e.g. Tu B'shvat). By contrast, the Israel Defense Forces came under severe criticism for destroying Palestinian olive trees in the process of clearing land for Israeli settlements.

This Mitzvah is mandated for both Jews and K'rovei Yisrael, and is highly recommended for believing Gentiles as well. The particulars of how to accomplish it need prayer - especially in these modern times when text that includes God's Name can be deleted from a computer or from cyberspace at the touch of a button.

1. In Orthodox Jewish practice the list is greater, and includes such things as t'filin, tzitzit, m'zuzot, bima covers, personal writings that contain God's Name, etc.

Maimonides, Meir, and HaChinuch treat this Mitzvah #H8 as two distinct mitzvot as follows:

Deuteronomy 12:3-4: All three generalize the circumstances alluded to in this Scripture to include anything that is overtly holy (including one of the seven Names of God) and anything that is generally useful. Meir would carry this even to the point of not melting down a piece of metal upon which has been written one of the Names. Chinuch emphasizes that we must not erase any holy writing, or a temple or altar established for the worship of God. Both he and Maimonides state that if Scripture is written down by an Israelite, it must not be erased or destroyed. If it is written by a heretic, it is not holy and must be destroyed (even if it contains God's Name) because the heretic did not believe in the holiness of the Name when he wrote it. HaChinuch says that if it is written by a heathen, it should not be destroyed, but rather hidden and stored out of sight. Maimonides adds that we must not break down houses where the Lord is worshiped.

Deuteronomy 20:19: All three commentators interpret this Scripture broadly to include destruction of all kinds. Maimonides and Meir first deal with the Scripture literally as prohibiting our destroying fruit trees in the process of setting siege to a town, and Maimonides adds: "in order to cause distress."2 Meir goes on to say that we must not cut down any fruit tree destructively, nor break a useful object, nor tear a garment, nor ruin food, nor demolish a sound structure. HaChinuch states that we must not destroy fruit trees in order to cause damage or loss, nor should we needlessly set fires, tear clothing, or break vessels. He says that the reason for these restrictions is in order to fulfill the mitzvah of loving others (presumably he means our enemies), and to bring out the love that is inherent in godly people. We are to love that which is good and beneficial, be saddened when a valuable thing is broken or destroyed, and never destroy anything in anger.

2. See also, Mishneh Torah, Shoftim, Hilchot Melachim VI, 10.


Return to main index